Thursday, April 10, 2014

What anyone who is still coming here is wondering is no doubt when winter will end and spring will start. Also, when I am going to write something new. I hope soon--this isn't it, just a "yes I'm still alive" post. Working on, well, work, and an MA, and soon a PhD, and raising a family, and taking care of a house, and 2 dogs, and a cat, and a bunny, and trying to eat and sleep sometimes, is rather a busy task. Yet, I am attempting to do it all with humour, panache, gentlemanliness, bravery, patience, and a whopping amount of divine grace. Also some good hats. Having just ordered two hats from Christy's in London, and a pair of Ecco shoes, I'll be writing a review post soon! And taking down that poll that has been up for about a year...

Oh, one more thing--the ads. There was a complaint some time ago about the ads. I would gladly remove them. But, I am a poor fellow, and amazingly, for doing nothing but having adds, I get about $100 per year from Google. So I'm afraid they must stay, and I hope people click on them often, and buy things from my little Amazon store. 

I also, finally, posted comments! I'll be back with reviews in a few weeks...

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Button Hole of Antiquity

When I last wrote--years ago now--about the origins of the button-hole/boutonnière, I'm afraid I misled the public. The whole intent was to demonstrate what a gentleman Prince Albert was, and how little today the flower in the lapel makes an appearance (a tragic absence, I think). And in my exuberance I overplayed my hand, giving total credit to the Prince Consort and neglecting any deep historical analysis, thus presenting a rather dodgy portrait of the true antiquity of the buttonhole flower. And so, while the main points of the article stand, for the origin of the button hole, allow me to refer you to the Gentleman's Gazette, to whom I am indebted for the correction.  For etiquette, gentlemanly example, and why wearing a flower in the old lapel button-hole is a grand idea, I hope the Well-Dressed Gent article spurs suit-wearing men to action. And in re this action, I present a new poll, to the top right of the page.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Gentleman, Morality, Jobs, and St. Thomas More

When I was a child, I quietly made the decision, at various points, to be good—even heroically good. To paraphrase St. Thomas More, my plan was to do no harm to anyone, to think no harm of anyone, but to wish everybody good, and to defend people who could not defend themselves.  It was a strong desire.  It wasn’t something I spoke of to anyone; it was quiet and subtle, but strong, like a sunset: beautiful, good, fresh, quiet, yet powerful.  The beauty of childhood; I was around 6 or 7 or thereabouts. I don’t know if this is a common childhood experience or not, but I can say this:  although these aspirations have never ceased, I have taken a vacation from them here and there over the years (never to any good end, I should add).  A gentleman may fall, but he trusts in God’s mercy, knows himself weak, picks himself up, and tries his best once again.  

It’s a great maxim, that saying by St. Thomas More, and one to which every gentleman should aspire, and perhaps should carry about with him written on a scrap of paper in his wallet: “I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good.” And if you fall flat on your face, however bad it may seem, get up again, so as to end well.

Anyhow, this got me thinking about some basic insights in re morality, how it is intrinsically good, never a means to something else, but good and beautiful in itself. Just some basic insights mind you, applicable to everyone, and good for the gentleman to ponder:

1)     Moral virtues never present themselves as a means to something else. For example, you see the honesty and purity of your girlfriend or wife, and you can see that those things are good in themselves. They’re not like a piece of rope that only has moral relevance, for example, to pull a drowning man out of the water, and after the saving is done the piece of rope lapses back into moral insignificance.
2)     Following on the above, a means to something else is commonly disregarded once the end has been achieved. But morality, being a good in itself, cannot be set aside as irrelevant. To use the above example, once you marry your sweetheart who is so honest you expect that honesty to continue. If she says she was only honest so you would marry her, then sets honesty aside as being no longer useful, you would find you had married someone who is not what you thought, their beauty diminished, and yourself wondering if the dinner on the table really was made from scratch. But mostly it would be horrible to see someone you love lose such an intrinsically precious aspect of their character. Morality, that is, makes us beautiful, more human.
3)     If one were to take morality as a means to something else, it would sever the aspect of obligation we find in the moral sphere. For example, if you were passing a house and saw an unattended baby drowning in a small pool of water you would not think, “If I save the baby I may get a reward, and if I do not save it, I won’t. I must choose if I want that reward or not.” No, we find rather an obligation: “You MUST save that baby!” And the gentleman springs into action. There is this obligatory nature to morality. One thinks of criminals who after many years confess to the police or a friend, because they just can’t take it—their conscience smites them. All too many of us, perhaps, know of the sleepless night because we have done something we knew to be seriously wrong (a good sign though—it means your conscience is working; it’s the ones who can sleep peacefully after doing despicable things that are the ones I worry about).
4)     Morality, taken as means, ignores the depth of the moral call. It’s not something that can be set aside at some point. Not one of us can say, “I have reached moral perfection now.” It’s the work of a lifetime, a daily work. If one had nothing else to do the next day, there is always this: to work at becoming a better, a truer, a more loving and lovable gent.

One final note, continuing the St. Thomas More theme. He likens life in this world to be, in a sense, like a play on a great stage.  Your role may be the wealthy fellow, a King, a poor beggar, a simple family man, a mechanic, a composer of awe-inspiring music. But when the play is done, we all take off our costumes, King and beggar alike, and what is underneath? What are we, once the costume is removed? When you leave this world—who knows when—and you take nothing with you, your costume remaining here at the theatre, what will you have? What will you look like? I don’t know when my role on the stage will be complete, nor do you know of your exit, but one day all of us will lack our costumes, and on that equal playing field there will be no King or office manager, no wealthy chap nor poor beggar: what’s on the inside is what will show forth. It’s not the splash you make in this world that counts—it’s how you live.

Oh right, on a last, genuinely final note, I wanted to add this: how you live includes how you live when you have—as is all too common today—lost your job. I only mention this because it is so prevalent. But remember this—it is we who give dignity to work, work does not give dignity to us. If, gentlemen, you lose your job, do not despair. You have intrinsic worth that cannot be taken away by lack of work. You have far, far more to offer than mere work. And this is coming from a fellow who has been there, for years! No matter how bad it gets, stay positive: the stars still shine, and in time all will be well. In the meantime, live well, practice patience, persevere, frequently tell jokes, learn to play the piano, or write a book. Well, look for work too, but make the best of it, and despite the stress, remember—there are greater things in the world than this to be concerned with, and worse things that could happen. Be at peace.

And so gentlemen, today I leave you with the words, once again, of St. Thomas More (in fact, the more (no pun intended) one ponders these words, the more one realizes how dashed tricky it is to really live this)—and as I said in the last post, paste it into your hat:

“I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good.”

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Theatre, and a Splendid Website

Recently I happened upon a wonderful blog by Joanna Burgess, pages full of good things--articles, poetry, videos of beautiful music, wonderful accents, and merry wit. It's rare to find such a--well, I would say such a beautiful and enchanting website.

Specific to the gentlemanly nature of The Well-Dressed Gentleman, I'd like to post a recent article from Joanna's website--not written by Joanna, but by a fellow named Howard Shalwitz and posted by Joanna. It's a great article on why theatre--not the movie theatre, but real, live theatre--matters. Read it and paste it into your hat...and find a good play to attend; Shakespeare is always good. Or, yes, opera. In fact, if you can find Don Giovanni by Mozart, give it a whirl. Seeing an immoral fellow at the point of death, threatened with Hell, and refusing to repent even as he is dragged downward--all set to Mozart's music--sends shivers up the spine. Lots of true humanity in that opera throughout, from the humorous, to the sad, to the terrifying.

Anyway, here is that splendid article. And don't forget to check out Joanna's blog.

7 Reasons Why Theatre Makes Our Lives Better

As someone who came from a family of doctors, started out pre-med in college, detoured to philosophy, then teaching, and finally to theatre — not only did my career choices slide steadily downhill from my mother's perspective, but I was left with a moral conundrum: does my chosen profession, theatre, make a valuable contribution to the world when compared with the other professions I left behind? I guess this conundrum has stuck with me, because as recently as this past winter I made a list of seven reasons why theatre matters and I'd like to share them with you briefly tonight.
First, theatre does no harm. Theatre is one of those human activities that doesn't really hurt anyone or anything (except for its carbon footprint -- but let's ignore that for now). While we're engaged in making or attending theatre, or any of the arts for that matter, we are not engaged in war, persecution, crime, wife-beating, drinking, pornography, or any of the social or personal vices we could be engaged in instead. For this reason alone, the more time and energy we as a society devote to theatre and the arts, the better off we will be.

Second, theatre is a sophisticated expression of a basic human need -- one might call it an instinct -- to mimic, to project stories onto ourselves and others, and to create meaning through narrative and metaphor.. We see this instinct expressed in children when they act out real or imagined characters and events. We have evidence of theatre-like rituals in some of the oldest human societies, long before the foundations of Western theatre in Ancient Greece. So theatre matters, in essence, because we can't help it. It's part of what makes us human.

Third, theatre brings people together. For a performance to happen, anywhere from a hundred to a thousand or more people need to gather in one place for a couple of hours, and share together in witnessing and contemplating an event that may be beautiful, funny, moving, thought-provoking, or hopefully at least diverting. And in an age when most of our communication happens in front of a screen, I think that this gathering function of theatre is, in and of itself, something that matters.

Fourth, theatre models for us a kind of public discourse that lies at the heart of democratic life, and builds our skills for listening to different sides of a conversation or argument, and empathizing with the struggles of our fellow human beings whatever their views may be. When we watch a play, we learn what happens when conflicts don't get resolved, and what happens when they do. We develop our faculty for imagining the outcomes of various choices we might make in our personal lives and our political lives. It's not surprising that, in repressive societies, theatre has often been aligned with the movement toward openness and freedom. In South Africa theatre played a role in the struggle against apartheid; in Czechoslovakia, a playwright became the leader of a new democracy. If our own representatives and senators in Washington went to the theatre more often, I suspect we'd all be better off.

Fifth, both the making of theatre and attending of theatre contribute to education and literacy. Watching the characters talk back and forth in the theatre is tricky; it requires sharp attention, quick mental shifts, and nimble language skills. It teaches us about human motivation and psychology. In historical plays we get lessons in leadership and government. In contemporary plays, we learn about people and cultures in different parts or our own country or in other countries. Studies have shown that students who participate in theatre do better in school. Making plays together also draws kids out of their shells and helps them learn to socialize in a productive and healthy way.

Sixth, theatre as an industry contributes to our economy and plays a special role in the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods. We've seen this quite clearly in our own city. You can look at the role that the Studio Theatre played along the 14th Street corridor, or Shakespeare Theatre along Seventh Street, or Woolly in both these neighborhoods, or Gala Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights, the Atlas along H Street, or the new Arena Stage along the waterfront. As each of these theatres opened, new audiences started flooding in, new restaurants opened, jobs were created, the city improved the sidewalks, and neighborhoods that were once grim and forbidding became vibrant hubs of activity. And this pattern has been repeated in cities across the United States and around the world.

Finally, the seventh way that theatre matters -- and this one applies to some kinds of theatre more than others -- is that it influences the way we think and feel about our own lives and encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values, and our behavior. The most vivid example of this I've ever experienced was during a post-show discussion at Woolly Mammoth when a woman said that one of our plays made her and her husband decide that they had a serious problem in their marriage and needed to go for counseling; and she was pleased to report that they were still together and much happier as a result. Now, I'll admit, I don't hear things like this every day. But speaking more generally isn't this one of the things we go to the theatre for, to measure our own lives against the lives we see depicted on the stage, to imagine what it would be like if we had those lives instead? And isn't it a very short step from there to saying, gee, maybe there's something I should change about my own life? And it may have nothing to do with the message that the playwright wanted to deliver! Maybe the play is about a fierce battle over a family dinner that breaks the family apart over irreconcilable political divisions -- but maybe you watch the play and say, gosh, wouldn't it be nice to at least have a family dinner once in a while, and so you decide to plan one for next month.

So, those are my seven ways that theatre matters: it does no harm, expresses a basic human instinct, brings people together, models democratic discourse, contributes to education and literary, sparks economic revitalization, and influences how we think and feel about our own lives.
Howard Shalwitz is the Artistic Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Wow, You Look Sharp! Do You Have a Meeting?

I don't know if you've come across this, but I'll bet most of you have at some point. You pull on a snappy ensemble, kiss the wife adieu and head to work. When you get there you're greeted with this unfortunate comment: "You look sharp! Very business like. Do you have a meeting?"

That's just a symptom of the problem--the loss of the culture of gentlemanly dapper panache. These days, most people are of this mindset: A suit is for business, maybe a wedding or funeral. The rest of one's days are meant for jeans or shorts and perhaps, just maybe if they want to punch it up a bit, a polo shirt.  How we got from the 1940s to now is too large of a horse to tackle in this particular post, mostly because this post is being written in the late eve, when gentleman are either a) preparing for the bedtime repast of scotch, whisky or [name your potion], or b) on the third course of a late night dinner party. I am n the "a" category" tonight.

But it is a sad state of loopiness when dressing well equals business, rather than pleasure. True, this is the same culture that mistakes casual-dress for men with dressing like a child or, at best, your common teenager.

We should define our terms though.

Casual-dress=[this is but one example, and a standard one] a blue blazer with brass buttons and white or gray pants.

Semi-formal=a suit.

Formal=tuxedo or morning dress.

Yet, most would call all of the above "formal." Now I don't mean jeans and a t-shirt don't have their place; they do, and so do shorts. But that's not even casual wear--it's either super-casual ("super" meaning "beyond"), or else sporting-wear. 

None of this answers the question though: How to change these insane sartorial attitudes. When one watches Jeeves and Wooster one does not think, "Ah, Bertie is on his way to the old office." No, one thinks, "Now that is how a man about town ought to dress every time he goes out--Bertie must be headed to a restaurant or the Drones Club, or to the country to help a pal." Basically, when you see Bertie putting on a suit it means he is going outside of his flat, end of story. And he looks every bit the dapper lad. There's no office involved, for goodness sakes. Indeed, wearing a suit or else nice pants and a sport coat, from Bertie's time (1920's/30's) until recently, were simply de riguer.

This post isn't going to reach many people who don't already dress, or are thinking about dressing, like gentlemen. But let us encourage one another to do at least one thing to influence the world for the better--wear true casual-wear or suits as a matter of course, unless reason prohibits it for some reason (heat, illness, sports and the like, viz, times when one can't wear such an ensemble or other wear is called for). The more of us that can answer the "why so dressed up today, do you have a meeting?" With, "Just to dress up, to look like a gentleman" the more people will expect real men to dress thus.

If more men did, what a difference it would make! Dressing well makes one want to act better, speak better, and be more chivalrous; and it helps others want to do likewise. Women will begin to expect that real men dress like men, not like teenagers. The world will be more pleasant to walk about in.

Courage! Keep dressing like real men, and whatever happens--well, it's like what Guggenheim said when the Titanic was going down and there was nothing more he could do--when the most recent movie came out youngsters everywhere laughed at him, but in real life it was an astoundingly brave and gentlemanly way to face death: He had helped women and children to get to boats, and decided not to get in one himself so that he wouldn't take their ticket to safety. He then said, on behalf of himself and his friends, "We are dressed in our best and prepared to go down like gentlemen. And we would like a brandy."

Now that's a gentleman, dressed to the nines whether in life or preparing for death, bravely facing his own demise as he sacrifices himself to let women and children live. Lads, that's a good example right there. We, too, can aspire to being such true gentlemen! And it does take work--but it's worth it.